Timothy Murray had a comfortable life: a college education, good jobs, fulfilling relationships. "I've always had real good luck."
That was before he crossed paths with Pele.
Murray's luck went south in 1997 after he went to Hawaii to accept a new job. When the job fell through, Murray consoled himself with a trip to the Big Island and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Entranced by the island's black sand beaches, Murray did what tourists often do. He took home a memento, scooping up the sand in a pop bottle.
When he returned home to Port St. Lucie, Fla., Murray's good fortune had fled. His beloved pet died. The five-year relationship with the woman he was to marry fell apart. He began to drink heavily. Finally, FBI agents, who said they had been tracking him from Hawaii, arrested him in a computer copyright infringement case.
"My life literally fell apart," Murray, 32, says of the three years after he took the sand. "One minute you're working and you're law-abiding and you've got money in the bank. The next minute you are sitting in a federal penitentiary in Miami. I couldn't figure out what was happening or why. Even the FBI agents said they never arrest people for what I did. They told me, 'You really must have pissed someone off.' After some research, I figured out who it was."
Murray blames Pele.
According to the beliefs of some Hawaiians, Pele is the volcano goddess who punishes people who dare take something that belongs to her. Each year thousands of visitors pass through Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and each year a little of the park goes home with them. And, after months or years of hard luck, many tourists send back the purloined rocks, sand and shells to park headquarters or the local post office.
"Please take this sand and put it back somewhere on your island," Murray wrote in his letter. "I have had very bad luck since it came into my life and I am very sorry I took it. Please forgive me and I pray that once I send it back where it comes from, my bad luck will go away."
Thousands of pounds of such mail, often addressed to "Queen Pele," arrive here every year. The packages come from around the world, often filled with reports of misfortune and calamity. The correspondents plead for the offending item to be returned to Pele, so the "curse" will be lifted and they can have their lives back.
Dave Kell, postmaster at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park station, opens Pele's mail.
"I'm not a believer," says Kell, pulling out a box filled with recent Pele-pacifying letters. Another box contains plastic sandwich bags leaking small stones, black sand in a plastic margarine tub, shells, rocks of all sizes, a red clay Mayan figure. Much of what is sent back is not even from Hawaii, Kell says.
"People need something to blame their troubles on," he says, shrugging. "They bring this stuff on themselves."
Nevertheless, Kell's office is inundated, and it's been going on for years. Every three months or so, he takes a load to the park and dumps it. At another local post office, the less-skeptical staff makes a weekly pilgrimage to the sea. As they toss the pilfered stones into the water at sunset, the workers like to toast Pele with a cold beer.
As the letters attest, thousands of visitors have reconsidered their views on what they once regarded as local superstitions.
Larry Bell, owner of a large plumbing and heating company in Denver, considers himself a realist, not much given to New Age mumbo jumbo. But he says trouble abounded after he picked up a marble-sized piece of lava for a friend. In the six years since his trip to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Bell's daughter has been plagued with serious health problems, his marriage was strained to the breaking point, he's been forced to relocate his business and he unexpectedly needed heart surgery.
Bell says he can't help but wonder whether he's the subject of a Pele curse.
"I went back to Hawaii in January with my two kids," he says. "We talked about what to do. It sounds silly--do you find a shaman? Someone to absolve you? I don't know."
Many native Hawaiians do not take Pele lightly, nor does the National Park Service, which allows locals access to park sites for religious observances. Pele practitioners leave flower leis, food wrapped in ti leaves and other offerings on the edge of volcanoes as a sign of respect. Rangers seldom interfere with the visits, which often include special hula dances and chanting.
The island of Hawaii is entirely formed of volcanic rock, and living in harmony with all things natural--including rocks--is common sense to many raised on this island.
"We believe that every rock has mana, or power," says Piilani Kaawaloa, who grew up nearby and serves as a cultural interpreter at the park. "We believe that every rock has its function and a name and a place it should be. Some are for building and some are for cooking. There are rocks that if you take them down by the water, they will attract fish."
Standing on a small rise overlooking a distant smoking crater, park ranger Terry Reveira notes that it is against the law to remove any plants or minerals from a national park.
"As Hawaiians, we have been raised that when you are in nature, you ask permission to take something," she says. "That's true for rocks too. I've seen people take rocks from the park and I know the rocks don't want to go. On the way back to the car the people keep dropping the rocks on their feet."
The native Hawaiian view of taking such souvenirs is it's tantamount to stealing from Pele while visiting her home.
Watching tourists cram cigarettes into a steam vent near the Mauna Loa crater, Kaawaloa shakes her head. "As far as Pele, you don't have to believe it, but know the consequences of your actions will speak more loudly than the warnings," she says.
People like Murray no longer need convincing.
"These are unexplainable things," he says. "You may have your doubts about Pele, but let me tell you, when these things happen, you are willing to be on your knees in front of anyone or anything. You feel like, 'Get this stuff away from me!' Since I sent the sand back, I've started getting my life back. That's all I know."